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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jan. 26, 201612:00 PM EST

'Less-than-good bookkeeping' issue fixed for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

The city is proposing transferring nearly $291,000 to the Legal Aid Trust Fund, but Jacksonville Area Legal Aid won’t realize any benefit until the 2016-17 general fund budget is being prepared.

And the benefit will be procedural, not financial.

An ordinance will be introduced today to City Council that would transfer $290,710.22 from four legal aid subfunds and the special events operating fund to cure a negative cash balance in the account earmarked for the city’s contribution to JALA.

It’s strictly about accounting, said Chief Financial Officer Mike Weinstein.

“We have to clean up the books,” he said.

In 2004, Article V of the State Constitution was amended to require that counties provide funding for certain costs incurred by the state court system, including legal aid agencies.

Each year since, the city has based JALA’s annual budget on the amount of funding that will be derived under Article V.

In several of the years since the amendment went into effect, the estimate was greater than the fees collected, which resulted in a deficit in the fund at the end of the budget year.

The issue was compounded, Weinstein said, because the Legal Aid Trust Fund was established as an “all years” account.

That means if there’s a surplus at the end of the year, it carries over into the next budget year. The same applies to a shortfall, which resulted in the deficit as far as the accounting is concerned.

The four subfunds related to the proposed legislation and the special events account are “swept” of any surplus at the end of each budget year, Weinstein said.

He said in no way does JALA owe the city money.

“It’s gratifying to see this happen,” said Jim Kowalksi, executive director of JALA.

Each year when JALA went before the council Finance Committee during preparation of the city budget, the discussion began with the council auditor pointing out the deficit in the account.

Kowalksi said zeroing out the account will allow the city and JALA to plan the next year’s budget based on true need rather than an estimate of income from court clerk fees.

“I’m just happy to see the city is cleaning this up,” he said.

The administration is continuing its work to improve how the city manages and accounts for funds, Weinstein said.

Several other all-years accounts are slated for conversion into annually swept accounts.

“It was less-than-good bookkeeping,” he said.

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